In Development: Adventures in Film, Volume Eight

Through my first seven rolls of film, I was pretty pleased with the results. The only roll that bordered on failure was the roll of long-expired Portra 160NC that had some very strange color shifts (or perhaps scanning problems?). But I had low expectations for that roll and there were some pretty cool shots that came out of it. All things considered, my adventures in film had been a resounding success.

This is when things got a little frustrating. I was going on a week-long trip to some national parks in Utah1 and I decided to take my Mamiya 7 II along with my digital Fuji gear. I packed a variety of film stocks ranging from Ilford FP4+ to Fuji Velvia 50 and happily snapped away. When I got the scans back from the lab a few months later, I was very disappointed. Some turned out alright, but in general the visions I had in my head when I took the shots didn’t match what I got back from the lab. I’ll be coming back to this theme more in the next few posts, and I’ll talk more about what went wrong and how I plan to fix it going forward.

I’ll touch a bit on what went wrong in this post too, but first I want to talk about this roll’s film stock: Kodak Portra 400. Historically, Kodak produced three flavors of Portra 400: an older UC (“Ultra Color”) version and the newer VC (“Vivid Color”) and NC (“Natural Color”) versions. More recently, the VC and NC versions were discontinued and replaced with a new version that supposedly combined the best parts of VC and NC. A key selling point of the new Portra is that it’s extremely forgiving and has a tremendous amount of dynamic range2. In an excellent article by Tim Parkin, he “measures” about 19 stops of dynamic range. That’s a lot3. More on this later.

When I was preparing for my trip, I did some research on what kind of film stocks would best complement the Utah scenery. I even reached out to Eric Erlenbusch, a Utah film photographer who produces ridiculously awesome work, and asked for his advice. He pointed out that Portra was traditionally a portrait film (thus the name…) and that it’s designed to render natural colors (skin tones in particular). As such, it won’t provide the extremely vibrant colors that are common in most landscape photography. That said, he recommended that I bring along a roll (along with some Ektar and Velvia) and experiment. So I did!

From my research on Portra, I heard a lot about how overexposing a couple stops would typically produce warmer and slightly more saturated colors. This sounded like something that would help offset the subtle nature of Portra nicely in the context of the Utah landscape, so I overexposed the shots on this roll by 1–2 stops. It’s worth pointing out that overexposing color negative film (as Portra is) is completely different than overexposing a digital image. When shooting digitally, overexposing is the cardinal sin because a “blown out” highlight that’s all white has no detail in it that can be resurrected in post-production. If you overexpose too much when shooting digital, you have a ruined image. With color negative film, the opposite is true: underexposing is the cardinal sin. If you overexpose film, you’re actually creating more detail. Overexposing just allows the film to collect more light. This extra light translates to more information being collected by the film for the scanner to read. This is what’s known as a “dense” negative. When you combine this strategy with the incredible exposure latitude/dynamic range of Portra, it’s kind of a no-brainer to default to overexposing by a couple stops to prevent any accidental underexposed and muddy images.

So when I was shooting, I wasn’t concerned at all with blowing out highlights. When I got my scans back from the lab, though, the highlights were mostly blown out. Needless to say, I was confused.

After some research and problem-solving, I determined that the problem wasn’t with the film or the way that I metered and shot. The problem was with the scanning. These days, it seems like most film photographers are wedding or family portrait photographers, and “the look” that these photographers generally have contains really warm tones and lots of overexposure/blown out highlights. This creates a dreamy aura that’s perfect for weddings. I’m guessing that the people operating the scanner were just kind of applying the same look to the shots I took without reflecting on whether that look was appropriate for the images. Obviously, blown out highlights is not a look we’re generally going for in landscape photography…so I would have expected the lab to have made that tiny assumption and scanned my negatives appropriately.

When I finally realized this was the root of the issue, I scanned my favorite shot from the roll myself using my cheap flatbed scanner. I’d much prefer to let the lab do the scanning for me, as their equipment is far superior to mine and the process of scanning is pretty tedious (so. many. dust. spots.). But if the lab totally whiffs on intuiting your artistic vision, you have to roll up your sleeves and just do it yourself. I didn’t re-scan all of these images since it’s so tedious to do so and none of these images were really profile-worthy, but I’m afraid I might need to do this more often in the future (and/or have some more back-and forth with my lab). More to come on this in the future…

All shots were taken with my Mamiya 7 II and the Mamiya 80mm f/4 and Mamiya 43mm f/4.5 lenses in March 2016 in Fort Collins, CO and Utah. The film was developed and scanned by Richard Photo Lab (with one scanned by me as well), and the digital files were processed minimally in Lightroom. Enjoy!

  1. I’ll be posting a few travel posts about that trip now that my China series is completed. 
  2. Dynamic range is essentially a measure of amount of contrast a film can handle and produce usable results. More dynamic range = can keep more detail in contrasty scenes. 
  3. By comparison, a slide film like Fuji Velvia 50 has 4–5 stops. 

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